Starting Five: PG Chris Paul, SG JJ Redick, SF Jared Dudley, PF Blake Griffin, C DeAndre Jordan
Key Bench Players: G Jamal Crawford, SF Matt Barnes, PF Antawn Jamison, PG Darren Collison, F/C BJ Mullens, G Willie Green
Offseason Additions: JJ Redick, Jared Dudley, Antawn Jamison, BJ Mullens, head coach Doc Rivers
Offseason Subtractions: PG Eric Bledsoe, G Chauncey Billups, SF Grant Hill, PF Lamar Odom, C Ronny Turiaf
FACT OR FICTION: Doc Rivers’s addition makes this team into a title contender.
FACT. So much fact. Fact all up and down those nifty new banners in STAPLES Center.
The real question is…
FACT OR FICTION: The real key to the Clippers’s championship puzzle is in the front court.
FACT. All the puzzle pieces are on the table. It’s just up to Doc Rivers to put them together…for the most part.
A multi-time All-Star and perennial MVP candidate? Check. Chris Paul, you can stand up. A cadre of shooters that will keep every opposition scattered? Check. JJ, Jared, Jamal, Jamison and Barnes, you too. A championship level coach whose whiteboard proficiency won’t be called into question late in games…or late in April? Check. Doc, stop shouting, you can leave.
But a pair of big men who can a) destroy opponents on the boards, b) punish defenses by hitting wide open spot up jumpers, c) hit free throws and d) stay on the court? That box is blank. For now. DeAndre and Blake, sit down until further notice.
For now, just for now, we’re going to take Chris Paul’s health for granted. We’re also going to assume that the Clipper swingmen are going to keep on hitting those threes and playing at least sufficient defense. With those parts of the team locked down, the team’s biggest weaknesses lie in their $27 million+ big men.
Jordan of course, has been the bigger disappointment of the pair. He’s been extremely healthy, playing every game over the past two seasons. He’s also given up very good production while on the floor–his per 36 averages from 2011-2013 are 11.4 ppg, 10.8 rpg, 2.4 bpg and an incredible .639 FG%. In essence, if DJ plays like one of the best centers in the league when playing a healthy amount of minutes.
The problem is that he rarely gets past the 30 minute mark. The 25 year-old has averaged a shameful 25.7 minutes per game over the last two years, due in large part for his penchant for early game fouls and sometimes over-exuberant/careless defense. The other piece of his low court time total? His free throw ability that seems to be degrading on the timeline of an avocado’s halflife. Jordan has locked in an embarrassing .424 FT% clip from the line, a mark in which he shattered last season with a .386 percentage. Remarkably, that’s not even his career worst, which would be his .375 FT% during the 2009-2010 campaign. Despite his shot blocking ability and rebounding prowess, DeAndre is a complete liability in late and close games. The Clippers really failed to find a suitable back-up center this offseason, signing old hand Ryan Hollins and “stretch-5” BJ Mullens (only in name–the MAMBINO Ugly Power Rankings stalwart shot 3.9 3PA per game to only .317 3P%). If Jordan wasn’t able to improve enough on his defensive prowess or free throw shooting this summer, the Clips may be forced to go with Griffin at center in crunch time, with Barnes, Jamison or Dudley going small at the 4. Not an ideal situation.
Jordan is a huge piece of the Clippers defense, to be sure. However, the other part will depend on if the ubermensch Blake Griffin will have a LeBron-like awakening and begin to show signs as the devastating defender that seems to be locked deep within his DNA. For his first three seasons, Griffin hasn’t been nearly the lockdown big his athleticism suggests, as he’s been a regular target in the post for opposing teams to target when they have a proficient scorer on the block. More to the point, Blake hasn’t emerged as a rim protector and has devolved as a rebounder. He’s averaged around a half a block per game, and saw his rebounding averages decline for a third straight season.
Perhaps we’re expecting too much of Blake, and too soon at that. He’s still just 24 years old, even though it feels like a decade ago that he demoralized all of Mother Russia when he made “Mozgoved” into a verb. Griffin is one of the most explosive players in the league and a reliable 15-20 point scorer on any given night. Teams have to plan for him when they play the Clippers, a compliment all on its own. There seems to be an expectation from onlookers–myself included–that he should be considered in the league’s best 20 players, when instead there seems to be an endless stream of criticism about his game. It’s far to early to say whether or not he’ll ever get to LBJ-esque height, or if he’s even capable of being that type of two way destroyer of men.
But regardless of whether it’s too soon or too much, the Clippers need Griffin to evolve this year if they expect to contend for a championship. The addition of Doc Rivers should signal an even more merciless, feared defense from the Clips, and both Blake and DJ will be right at the center of it. Griffin, though an improved free throw shooter at 66% last season, needs to get even better if he, like Jordan, expects to consistently play at the end of games.
The Clippers haven’t been to the Conference Finals in their entire history, and more recently the past two seasons with Chris Paul and it hasn’t been hard to see why. However, they now have the postseason experience, the outside shooting and in-game management will improve and the perception of the Clippers as a legitimate title contender has, most astonishingly, has seen a tectonic shift. If the Red, White and Blue want to officially signal the revolution in DTLA, Blake and DeAndre will have to be right at the middle of it. That, along with a couple lucky rolls of the basketball, could be the difference between a championship and an extremely disappointing season.
These Clippers will be very, very good. Historically good. This is the best team in Los Angeles, and there is no debate. At year’s end, it wouldn’t be a surprise if they held the best record in the NBA. We’re not just looking at the best team in Clippers history. We could be looking at the best team in the league.
Best Case Scenario: Take a guess? Blake and DeAndre are two of the three Clipper All-Stars at the break. They blitz the NBA en route to a 65-win season. Chris Paul dethrones LeBron as MVP of the regular season…and in the Finals. The Clips no longer have to put up player banners in STAPLES. They have a title banner of their own.
Absolute Apocalypse: Blake and DJ maintain their solid, but not spectacular production. Chris Paul’s knees act up. The shots stop falling for Jamal, JJ, Jared and Jamison. Guys like Mullens and Hollins are playing 20 more minutes a night than they should be. The Clippers come in second to the Warriors for the Pacific Division title and are bounced once more in the first round by the fifth seeded Grizzlies. It’s a bad scene for every team in STAPLES Center this year.
Expected Outcome: 1st in the Pacific, 2nd in the Western Conference
Do you smell what MAMBINO is cooking? Check out the rest (so far) of our 2013-2014 NBA Season Preview series: